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The Creative

Advertisers risk arrest with guerrilla tactics

By Barry Neild for CNN
  • Guerrilla and ambush advertising campaigns regularly target major sporting events
  • Technique offers widespread publicity for a fraction of the cost of slick TV marketing
  • Legal expert says laws aimed at preventing guerrilla marketing often act as encouragement

(CNN) -- Anyone tuning in to watch last year's football World Cup in South Africa, couldn't help but notice the name of a popular American beer company that spent millions securing the sponsorship rights.

But, thanks to an ingenious and unauthorized "ambush marketing" stunt that merely involved the expense of placing 36 young women wearing bright orange mini-dresses in the crowd of one game, an entirely different beer company stole all the headlines.

Bavaria, a brewing company based in the Netherlands, faced threats of legal action after breaching rules laid down by World Cup organizers FIFA. Nevertheless, for a fraction of the cost of a slick television or online marketing campaign, they generated enormous publicity.

Profits too: whereas other beer companies experienced a 12% increase in sales during the soccer tournament, Bavaria's leapt by 41 percent, according to Nielsen. The stunt even earned the firm a nomination at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

Bavaria's orange dress campaign was one of hundreds of ambush or similar guerrilla marketing scams that drew the ire of FIFA during the World Cup, highlighting how this cheeky publicity-grabbing technique is gaining in popularity despite often breaking the law.

You would have no idea how hard it is to make a clean pattern in the dirt without getting into trouble
--Paul "Moose" Curtis, reverse graffiti artist
2010: FIFA battles 'ambush marketing'

Among them was a poster campaign by South African carrier Kulula Air that had to be halted after complaints that its claim of being the "unofficial national carrier of the you-know-what" breached legislation on sponsorship.

Nick Johnson, an advertising law expert at international legal firm Osborne Clarke says the activities of Bavaria and others could lead to a tougher regulations at international sporting events such as the 2012 London Olympics.

But, he says, even though there is a risk of courting bad publicity if members of the public get arrested, such legislation is likely to act as a spur to some companies who will see the chance of even bigger headlines.

"It's a pretty attractive proposition: you've got a global event everyone is talking about, it is very high in people's awareness, and then you manage to hitch yourself to that in a way that appears edgy and clever," Johnson said.

"I think for the Bavaria brand, that's been part of the attraction. They know they're going to get column inches, they know there's journalists looking for the ambush marketing stories because there always are."

Peer Swinkels, a member of Bavaria's board of directors, says he isn't allowed to discuss the legal aftermath (several of the women were arrested) of the World Cup campaign due to a deal reached with FIFA, but insists the stunt legitimately raised the company's profile.

"Bavaria is a challenger brand in Holland, we are the second player," he said. "If you are a challenger then it fits quite well to use non-traditional techniques and guerrilla marketing and gets attention in the traditional media but also the non-traditional media."

Not all campaigns end positively. In 2007, a guerrilla marketing stunt by the Adult Swim cartoon channel, owned by CNN's parent company Turner Broadcasting Systems, backfired when promotional devices placed around Boston sparked a bomb alert.

While the troubled stirred by the Boston incident shows the gray area that guerrilla and ambush marketing can occupy, some authorities have chosen to allow some types of unorthodox advertising methods in the hope of better controlling them.

This is true of reverse graffiti, a technique by which artworks are created by cleaning away accumulated grime on walls and sidewalks. In the English town of Leeds, where reverse graffiti originated, the local council is trialing a scheme under which it licenses such work.

A spokeswoman for Leeds City Council said the "forward-looking" project showed the authority was "willing to try out new ideas," and could bring in extra revenue.

However, the trial has only come about after more than a decade during which the artist credited with inventing reverse graffiti -- Paul Curtis, a.k.a. Moose -- has found himself on the wrong side of the law, even after the police commissioned one of his pieces.

"They said they were arresting me for criminal damage," Moose said, recounting a confrontation with police. "I explained there was no damage done as we were using the same equipment used by street cleaners, so by the same logic they should arrest all the street cleaners. They didn't listen."

For all the advertising dollars saved by using his low-cost techniques, Moose -- who has worked on campaigns for Microsoft's Xbox and a project to decorate San Francisco's Broadway Tunnel -- says he hasn't made much money, despite the risks he takes.

"I've been trying to get city councils involved with me and go above board, but you would have no idea how hard it is to make a clean pattern in the dirt without getting into trouble."

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